25 December – A shocking Gospel

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.

He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.

And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.
(John 1.1-14)

I suspect that there can be a measure of disappointment when people come to church on Christmas morning for the Eucharist and hear this gospel reading. What? No shepherds, no angels! What? No Mary, no Joseph! What? No baby Jesus, no ox, no ass! Instead of the readings that paint the traditional picture of Christmas – and they come only from Matthew and Luke’s gospels – we are given the beginning of John’s gospel with undoubtedly beautiful language (‘especially in the King James’ Version, Vicar’) but with dense theology. For people who like a bit of magic and sparkle at Christmas this gospel just doesn’t do it.

And yet it is the most wonderful piece of scripture and the most powerful attempt to describe what is at the heart of all that we are celebrating. The details of the nativity are wonderful, the star and the stable, the manger and the angels, the shepherds and the wise men and we couldn’t have a performance of the nativity by the Sunday School without them. But they can’t do any justice to what it is that we are really celebrating and that is the incarnation and that requires serious engagement.

We've all got somewhere else to get to ...

We’ve all got somewhere else to get to …

But perhaps you say that today is not the day for serious theological engagement and exploration of such a doctrine. There are sprouts to cook and a turkey to roast, a pudding to boil and pies to be baked. We want to open our presents, we want to watch the Queen, we want to chat to family (or avoid them), we want to get our feet up and head down and sleep off the lunch. Maybe tomorrow we can think about the incarnation – let’s just settle for Bethlehem today, for that is where we have been bound.

Yet it is precisely into Bethlehem and Southwark and wherever we are that God is made incarnate, into the midst of the busyness and distractions of the day, that the child is born, into our lack of time and inability to give our attention that a baby cries and his mother looks with love into the eyes of God’s son. That is the wonder and the reality of the incarnation. John tries, with the limitations of words, to describe what has happened in the deepest way possible

And the Word became flesh and lived among us.

Jesus enters the hustle and bustle of an over flowing town, with people rushing here and there. No one really noticed, just some outsiders, who came into the town at the prompting of angels. They weren’t welcome in town, smelly, unruly, loud-mouthed shepherds – but they were the only callers at the stable that day, the only ones to kneel at the manger, the only ones to bring anything with them.

Most people today will be rushing past the stable door, to get to mum’s, to get things done, to be with friends. But the truth remains and is as powerful as it has ever been

And the Word became flesh and lived among us.

Sir John Betjeman’s most famous Christmas poem is called simply that ‘Christmas’ and the ending remains as powerful today as it was when it was first written.

And is it true,
This most tremendous tale of all,
Seen in a stained-glass window’s hue,
A Baby in an ox’s stall ?
The Maker of the stars and sea
Become a Child on earth for me ?

And is it true ? For if it is,
No loving fingers tying strings
 Around those tissued fripperies,
The sweet and silly Christmas things,
 Bath salts and inexpensive scent
And hideous tie so kindly meant,

No love that in a family dwells,
No carolling in frosty air,
Nor all the steeple-shaking bells
Can with this single Truth compare –
That God was man in Palestine
And lives today in Bread and Wine.

Yes, it will still be true tomorrow. God is with us, and we have seen his glory. And it will be true every day for you and me that as we say in the creed

For us and for our salvation
he came down from heaven:
by the power of the Holy Spirit
he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary,
and was made man.

.. but some find their way through the stable door.

.. but some find their way through the stable door.

It is true and it will be true even for those who will always walk past the stable door, bound for somewhere else. But we are here, for we have been Bethlehem Bound.

Lord Jesus Christ,
your birth at Bethlehem
draws us to kneel in wonder at heaven touching earth:
accept our heartfelt praise
as we worship you,
our Saviour and our eternal God.

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